World's tallest wooden skyscraper planned for Vienna; city's fire service concerned

Image: Rüdiger Lainer + Partner.

Unlikely as it sounds, wooden skyscrapers are a thing these days. As we noted last year, concerns about the environmental impact of steel and concrete are driving some architects and designers back to wood as a more eco-friendly alternative. There's already a nine storey tower built from specially laminated timber in London, and a 12 storey wooden building under construction in Bergen, Norway. 

A planned tower for Vienna, however, is due to leapfrog both in terms of scale and height. The HoHo project in Vienna's Seestadt Aspern area will feature two wooden towers, the tallest of which will stretch to 25 storeys and 84m. The towers will be 76 per cent wood; Kerbler, the firm behind the designs, claim the material will produce 2,800 tonnes of CO2 when compared to a similar sized tower built from concrete.

However, according to the Guardianthe plans didn't go down so well with the Viennese fire department. Christian Wegner, spokesperson for the department, said:

A few of us were upset because it was crazy to present an idea like this that has not been discussed with everyone yet.

They have to carry out special tests on the correct combination of concrete and wood. We also want to develop a more fail-safe sprinkler system. I expect they will pass the tests but if they develop the building as they say they will, it will be a serious project.

The fire service is now working with the architects to ensure the building meets safety standards. If all goes to plan, construction will begin later this year, and should be completed in 2016.

Despite the fire service's hesitancy, the tower's height shows that planners and designers alike have a growing faith in the safety of timber structures. In the UK, it was against planning regulations to build a timber structure above three storeys until the early 2000s, when safety tests showed that taller timber structures could meet the same safety regulations as concrete or steel ones. Recent tests in Canada, meanwhile, have shown that timber treated in the right way can resist heat and flames for up to three hours.

Daniel Safarik, editor of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says resistence to wood-based construction stems from a lack of understanding around the materials on offer: 

[The Vienna project] will encounter some of the same issues as other structures in obtaining approvals, mainly that the local fire codes are often predisposed against wood as a material, due to the combustibility of traditional stick framing.

Cross-laminated timber panels, however, are quite thick and develop a “char layer” that allows them to support the building for several hours during a fire – just as concrete or masonry would. Most of the buildings we have seen proposed are not “pure” wood structures anyway. Many use some combination of steel, wood and concrete. In general, the arguments in favour of wood construction are strong. 

In summary: building giant towers out of wood is actually much safer than it sounds. 

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.